Recognizing a Pioneer

News Feature

News & Events

February 4, 2019

[Editor’s note: This is the first of four stories for Black History Month.]

Sarah A. Lewis was a pioneering Bridgewater student whose tale, absent a fortuitously placed photo album, could easily have been lost to history.

Lewis, a member of the Class of 1869, is believed to be Bridgewater’s first black graduate. Until Dr. Thomas Turner discovered her by accident, it was believed that Mary Hudson Onley, Class of 1912, held that title.

Turner, a professor emeritus of history, was conducting research in 2006 for his book, Not to be Ministered Unto, but to Minister: Bridgewater State University 1840-2010. In the midst of a long day in the Maxwell Library’s archives poring over Board of Higher Education documentation, he took a break and glanced at a photo album on a nearby table.

The album contained Lewis’ picture, and Turner knew an important part of Bridgewater’s history needed to be rewritten.

“That was one of the most exciting finds of the work I did,” Turner recalled.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Lewis moved with her family to Fall River. Her father worked as a waiter on the steam paddle vessel Empire State, which traveled between Fall River and New York City.

“This employment stabilized the family enough to allow Sarah, with the obvious encouragement and support of her parents, the privilege of pursuing her education rather than entering the workforce,” Dr. Philip Silvia, a professor emeritus of history, wrote in his pamphlet, Sarah Anna Lewis.

Lewis came to Bridgewater at a time when many of her peers worked in Fall River’s textile mills. She already had experience teaching and, as part of her acceptance to what was then the State Normal School at Bridgewater, committed to teach in Massachusetts public schools after graduation.

She completed her studies in 1869 – a year before Harvard University awarded its first undergraduate degree to a black student.

“We’ve always had a lot of diversity here,” Turner said, noting Bridgewater has attracted international students for much of its history. “That’s nothing new. Bridgewater has been open to it.”

Lewis’ teaching career ended abruptly when she wedded Edward A. Williams in 1871. Married women at that time were prohibited from teaching.

Without Lewis’ salary, the couple struggled financially. They moved to New York City, then back to Massachusetts to raise their children. Lewis worked as a seamstress and dressmaker. She died in 1939 at 92.

She continues to be recognized on campus, where she is a member of the Massachusetts Hall of Black Achievement. A painting of her hangs in Maxwell Library.

Turner wonders what would have happened if Lewis continued teaching. 

“This is a woman who seems to be very bright,” he said. “Unfortunately, her career was cut off.” (Story by Brian Benson, University News & Video)

Do you have a BSU story you’d like to share? Email stories@bridgew.edu.